As a scientist, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the world of academia, but the truth is that for our research to make a real difference, we need to be engaging with policymakers. The Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme ‘gives policymakers and research scientists an opportunity to experience each other’s worlds’, a four day scheme in Westminster that really does give you a glimpse into the world of politics and policy making.
On the train from Cardiff to London I was pondering what I wanted to get out of the scheme. I have to confess, going in, I wasn’t really clear on how policies are made and how my research might help to inform such policies. At the introductory dinner, it seemed this was a common theme among other participants. There were thirty research scientists from all over the United Kingdom apprehensive but keen to get involved and have their week in Westminster.
Day 1 – Introductions
Day one of the scheme kicked off with a rather exciting tour of the Palace of Westminster. We were able to go behind the scenes and see the Chambers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I learnt the origin of the term ‘three line whip’ (look it up if you don’t know – I found it really interesting) and we saw the crowning room (the room the Queen uses before the State opening of Parliament). Before this experience, I did not know that anyone can arrive at The Palace of Westminster and ask for a tour. It is something that I would highly recommend and I certainly learnt an awful lot just from the tour.
The afternoon of day one consisted of some interesting talks from The Royal Society and the Parliamentary Outreach Service to get more of a flavour of the scheme and how research can inform policy. The first day was rounded off with an exhibition to highlight the scheme and to meet civil servants, MPs and exhibitors.
Day 2 – Shadowing Kevin Brennan MP
I was fortunate to be shadowing my local MP, Kevin Brennan. I met Kevin and his Parliamentary Assistant Haf and they welcomed me in to their office to discuss the meetings of the day. I have to confess that I had done some background research. There is probably a fair amount of information online about your local MP too, including their voting record. After some simple Google searches on Kevin I found out that he used to be a teacher at Radyr Comprehensive school and that he is part of a cross party parliamentary rock band!
Before I knew it we were off, attending sessions with school children who had successfully competed in the UK Youth Rocketry challenge to build the best rocket. I was delighted to see that children were interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and particularly a large number of girls. Highlighting their rockets in Parliament was a wonderful opportunity for them to discuss their interests with a variety of different people including MPs.
I then went along to a meeting of Local Government Association Representatives. It was notable that there were areas of cross-over between culture and my research, mainly in relation to how health and culture can come together. Maybe you don’t believe me, but I bet your mood is significantly improved after listening to your favourite song, going to see a film or getting involved in activities in your local community centre or library.
The day was rounded off seeing the familiar and welcome face of Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Sophie had come to visit Westminster to highlight the Well-being of Future Generations Act. It was great to see this fantastic Welsh work being highlighted in Westminster in front of Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Day 3 – PMQs and a Mock Select Committee
Day three was probably my favourite day. It was my second day of shadowing Kevin Brennan MP and I was fortunate to be invited to Prime Minster’s Questions (PMQs). I was accompanied to PMQs by Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols (that’s something that I never thought I would say!), who is working with Kevin to raise the issue of transporting musical instruments safely on aeroplanes. I have often watched PMQs on TV, but seeing it in real life was quite the spectacle. We then met Tom Watson MP (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party) and it was a real privilege to discuss the ethics of genetic testing, brain imaging and what telomeres are over lunch!
After an action packed day we met back as a group for a Mock Select Committee to discuss the theme: should the UK have an Office of Scientific Responsibility? It was interesting to see the tables turned and members of the group questioning expert witnesses. The discussion and questions were themed around, how do we know when scientific evidence is true, particularly when two different scientists may come to different conclusions. This led to questions about whether there should be more policy makers with science backgrounds within the government.
Day 4 – Government Office for Science
Before I knew it the final day was upon us (boo!). The final sessions focused on the Government Office for Science. We were able to ask questions to Dr Patrick Vallance (Government Chief Scientific Adviser). I took the opportunity to ask about his vision for citizen science and public engagement and outreach in increasingly difficult times for science funding. The scheme was wrapped up nicely by Dr Alan Pitt – Deputy Director for Science and Security, taking us through how scientists can engage with the government.
Finally, we rounded off our experience with feedback and the lessons that we had taken away from the scheme. The winner of the social media competition was announced and I was delighted to receive the winning panetonne (but getting it back on the train was certainly a challenge!).
My main take away messages
It really was a privilege to take part and an incredible experience that will certainly stay with me for some time. Here are the main things that I learned:
- You are an expert in your field, have confidence in yourself. What is probably bread and butter to you might be really interesting to others, particularly if it relates to health (something that we all value).
- Politicians are people! I think this can be all too easy to forget. We may not always agree with them, but at the end of the day, politicians are people, who face difficult decisions on a daily basis.
- We all need to work more collaboratively. Sometimes we can be shoehorned into our specialist area or niche. But the art of communication, expressing your ideas clearly, will help to enable collaborative working, because this is the only way that we can create real change.
Although these messages might seem simple, the scheme improved my confidence, self belief and knowledge. I would strongly recommend applying when applications open next year.
I have to conclude in expressing my sincere thanks to everyone that made this experience possible. Joe and Becky from the Royal Society, who organised the scheme and attempted to keep us all under control! Kevin Brennan MP, who welcomed me in to experience his world for a few days. Kevin, I hope you learnt as much about science research as I did about politics! Haf, for helping to organise the shadowing experience. Finally, to everyone who was on the scheme, I have made some new friends and the phrase ‘laughed and learned in equal measure’ sums up this experience perfectly.